I have always suffered from sleep issues. As a therapist, I consistently recommend clients implement deep breathing and relaxation techniques at night to assist with sleep. Yet, I have epically failed at implementing these bedtime recommendations myself. So, I’m happy to share a different approach. Unlike breathing and relaxation practices that primarily relax the body, this technique relaxes the mind.
Putting the Mind to Rest
Sometimes worry keeps me up at night, but most often it’s my mind replaying everything I need to do. As I think about my tasks and obligations, more pop into my brain. My mind won’t slow down. Taking melatonin or over the counter sleeping medicine or restricting caffeine often causes annoying side effects, so the method I use for adequate sleep fits nicely into my lifestyle. It also helps my clients.
A soft-spoken, polite, and intelligent teenage boy found his way into my office last week because his mom caught him smoking pot. “But, Erin, I need it to sleep. I can’t sleep without it. My mind races at night.”
“I can relate,” I said. “Do you ever daydream?” I asked. He looked at me quizzically and said, “No, I don’t daydream.” “Ever?” I asked.” He smiled and said “No.” “Well, I’m giving you permission to,” I said.
Fantasies or daydreams are a mind’s healthy way of escaping reality for a moment and providing a break for different areas of the brain. Daydreams are not optimal at times when a human being must pay attention to work, school, or loved ones, but the perfect time for a delicious daydream is at bedtime.
Three qualities define a daydream that is useful for sleep.
- It cannot be serious. The more fantastic the better.
- It shouldn’t be something too real because it may turn into a visualization.
- It needs to be appealing.
Silly, fantastic, and indulgent are the three components of a useful bedtime daydream.
“Did you daydream about anything when you were younger?” I asked my client. “I used to imagine I was a professional baseball player, but I don’t play baseball anymore,” he said with a frown. So I asked what his favorite hobby is. “I like to listen to music and write out my own lyrics,” he replied. I nodded, “Perfect!” “Who is your favorite artist?” He described an artist who he admired and respected, and named the title to one of his favorite songs, “Introspection.” As a psychotherapist, I got a kick out of this title. The artist must be a fairly deep character if one of his songs reflects a central psychodynamic theme. Thumbs up.
Daydreams are Personal
I asked my client to imagine bumping into this artist at a coffee shop and spontaneously striking up a conversation with him. “What would you and he chat about?” What would you laugh about?” Imagine at the end of the conversation, the musician asks you to write some lyrics for him. Now, picture him pouring over the material, excited to incorporate the contribution into his next set.”
Next, I told him to fill in the gaps with whatever whimsical and fun thought comes to mind. Would you get a big paycheck, have a zillion Instagram fans, buy your mom a Bentley? He smiled and laughed and said he wanted to try the “daydream thing” that night. I’m excited for the next appointment to hear how it went. I also want to delve into deeper worries and anxieties, as I realize they may be an underlying factor as well.
At this point, I guess it’s appropriate to share the daydream that successfully puts me to sleep at night. It begins with a phone call from Ellen DeGeneres. After reading one of my Psychology Today blogs, she finds my ideas compelling. She sings my praises. We chat and yuck it up a bit, and she offers to fly my family and me to California so I can be a guest on her show.
At this juncture, my fantasy diverges. Sometimes I think about the details of the posh hotel we stay in. Occasionally, I think about the outfit I wear on the set. High waisted black pants, a red power blouse, gold dangly earrings. Once in a while, I imagine walking out on the stage, the audience clapping. Frequently, I build on the daydream, imagining Ellen likes me so much that she offers me a weekly spot on her show. I picture my face on the cover of a magazine and envision redecorating my kids’ rooms and the kitchen. There are big, juicy checks rolling in. Honestly, I adore this silly, fantastic, and indulgent activity, and it instantly puts me to sleep.
The Brain Needs Rest
The human brain is a magnificent tool, but it needs a break every so often. Daydreams have an important place in a human being’s mental health routine. The brain has two important systems, an analytic system and an empathetic system. When a person daydreams, he or she alternates through the two systems, giving one or the other a break. Daydreams also enhance creativity. They allow access to information that lay dormant and inspires associations between pieces of information not considered before.
Sprinkling a good old-fashioned daydream in with deep breathing, relaxation, and meditation may help a person grab a consistent night’s sleep. Also, it’s often entertaining to share a daydream with a partner or child who can revel in the fun with you. Modeling for other people the ability to imagine and dream may also help them develop a wonderful fantasy life for themselves. Sleep well and dream deliciously.